Does the future of Western social media development lie in the East?

Charlie Spargo's picture
by Charlie Spargo

Jimmy Robinson, Co-founder of PingPong Digital - which helps brands reach consumers in China - offers a unique perspective on how social media tech in the region is keeping China communicating, and asks if the West could learn lessons after lockdown and implement the same concepts of wide-ranging apps encompassing work and play.

As China - and Wuhan in particular - starts to slowly ease its lockdown restrictions, relatively little has actually been written in the West about how they managed to stay connected and keep working during their times inside their own homes. The answer is both a different approach to the technology situation in the West, and simultaneously one which could point the way to the development of new technology solutions in the months and years ahead. 

Some 200 million people were working remotely during the lockdown in China. Unlike many in London, the UK and the West, the Chinese aren’t faced with numerous different video conferencing services and professional connection points. Google and other common Western services famously aren’t available. That choice is much more simple and specifically designed for their region’s needs.

So tailored to the nation, in fact, that many people’s lives in the country have become deeply ingrained with the powerful social media platforms at their fingertips. It can be hard for people not familiar with first-hand use of these systems to understand why they have become so useful and connected to peoples lives, as the West tends to use social channels for specific and often siloed purposes.

However WeChat, developed by Tencent and serving over 1.5 billion users; and DingTalk, developed by Alibaba with over 200 million registered users, are much more closely intertwined with people’s professional and personal lives. According to official Chinese figures, some 98% of regular Chinese internet users access the information through their mobiles. This is becoming a heavily tech-savvy country, and it shows in their apps. 

WeChat’s active user accounts have grown by 20 million per quarter to over 1.15 billion users in total. Integrating payments, video, and many other features, WeChat has quickly become strongly woven into the fabric of everyday life, and that’s especially apparent in the workplace. Some Chinese, when entering a new job, will be automatically registered for the company’s WeChat Work account. Tencent, the owner of WeChat, has claimed that up to 80% of China’s top 500 companies are registered on the app, through over 1.5 million businesses in over 50 industries.

But this isn’t just a workplace comms tool like Slack or Teams. Once on WeChat Work, it’s not possible to set up a completely separate personal account - but you can link them. So effectively, the users of WeChat get two apps in one - both personal and professional.

At our offices in the UK, US and China, we've been using WeChat Work to solve our long-distance communication requirements for some time, and this continued during the lockdown. WeChat Work bridges users' working and downtime needs seamlessly. Each staff member is assigned an 'avatar' account that links to, and is initiated by, the staff's personal account.

This 'avatar' account, with the staff member’s real name, job title and professionally taken profile image - think LinkedIn-style - sits in a completely separate WeChat Work app, through which the staff can initiate multi-person conference calls, share large files via a built-in free cloud drive, and even apply for vacation. In this way, without too much fuss, the staff's personal self and professional self come into one, all thanks to WeChat, which supports its goal to be the primary social platform in the country.

So essentially, when one app has already spanned work and home in the lives of many in the country, it has also been keeping them connected while working from home. But China is much more diverse than being a one-social app country. The story of students delisting the Alibaba-backed app DingTalk from the app store in the earlier days of China’s COVID lockdown provided some much needed relief. And yet DingTalk is now officially recommended by the UN as a distance learning tool.

DingTalk is supported by Alibaba Cloud, or Aliyun, which is one of the earliest cloud service and solution providers in China. Its unmatchable infrastructure gives it an upper hand in the stability and quality of online collaboration, therefore it's preferred by the education sector and companies that rely heavily on video conferencing.

Another important feature on DingTalk is translation. The powerful built-in translation module translates English to Chinese and vice versa in a fraction of a second. Therefore many cross-border eCommerce vendors choose DingTalk over other platforms due to the high demand in multilingual communication. DingTalk is not the only successful education app developed in the region. 

The roots of BiliBili started as a video platform for Japanese anime, cartoons and other niche content. It attracted a very young audience with a penchant for this content, but swiftly attracted a wider audience by broadening its content categories. One of the areas Bilibili now focuses on is education. Last year, over 20 million people, ranging from primary school students to college and University students, watched the study guide videos on the service - that’s twice the number of students than took the famous College Entrance Examination (Gaokao) in 2019!

Technology has also underpinned the country’s ability to keep ecommerce flowing. A large proportion of the social apps have social eCommerce functionalities integrated. This meant that even when confined to their houses, many Chinese were already au fait with ordering products, services and even food deliveries to their homes. The ‘delivery culture’ and logistical infrastructure is also well developed, and means that many in the region could more easily have goods delivered, rather than struggle with long supermarket queues and panic buying in-store that many of us in the West will have just experienced.

While none of this has happened overnight in China, it does point to a more integrated set of options for the West once the lockdown eases. Apps which can span both work lives and home, greater access to online education tools and more natural eCommerce options within existing app services are already within the grasp of the West - the main issue to greater use is simply that there may be too many options for widespread adoption at the moment and integration issues.

What we're seeing is a willingness to accept and rapidly adopt different apps which are better aligned to people’s lives. Just look at TikTok - another app with roots in the chinese video app Douyin - which has swiftly gained numerous users thanks to its user-friendly design and focus. When you see its growth trajectory, it doesn’t seem too farfetched to say that other Chinese social apps could soon also find an audience well beyond the country’s borders.

The streamlined all-in-one power app made it easier and quicker for the Chinese to adapt to working from home as they already existed and integrated into essential services. So does this mean that going forward in a post-COVID-19 world, the future of app development or indeed, app infrastructure lies in the East? At the very least, we could see apps beginning to adopt models similar to these Chinese power apps.